In case you've always longed to decorate your office with vintage shots of early works by Mies van der Rohe, all concrete cantilevers and planes of onyx and glass, you'll have a chance on Nov. 13, when a Berlin auction house sells 123 prewar photos of buildings and proposals by Mies and his circle. But don't expect much data about the prints' provenance; in fact, scholars are calling the collection's origins "mysterious" and "fishy."
The 17-year-old auction house, Jeschke, Hauff & Auvermann (www.buchauktionen-berlin.de), will reveal only that the anonymous current owners bought the set a few years ago from a family that had kept them "for years." One family member "must have been someone at Mies' studio," perhaps his longtime collaborator Lilly Reich, auction house representative Joerg Mueller-Daehn wrote in a cryptic e-mail.
The unknown Mies staffer clearly had access to crucial material. The photos, dating from 1911 to 1938, depict façades, interiors, models, drawings, and construction sites for built landmarks (including Villa Tugendhat, the Barcelona Pavilion, and the Weissenhof housing estate) as well as some unrealized proposals (such as Reichsbank, Alexanderplatz, and the Glass Skyscraper) and government-sponsored furniture expos. A handful of streetscape shots reveal neighboring buildings by Mies' competitors, including Max Taut, Le Corbusier, and Peter Behrens. Office stamps from Mies or Reich—she took over the practice when he fled to the United States in 1938—appear on the backs of some 30 prints.
"It's an absolutely spectacular collection, with a number of images I'd never seen before," says T. Paul Young, a dealer in modernist art and furniture (and a former staffer at Mies' Chicago office), who co-owns the Young Fox Gallery in Michigan City, Ind.
But who first gathered the photos? The only plausible suspect, other than Reich, is Eduard Ludwig, a Bauhaus graduate who worked for Mies and Reich. "During the Allied bombing raids on Berlin," explains Claire Zimmerman, an art history professor at the University of Michigan and author of a 2006 Taschen monograph on Mies, "Reich and Ludwig stored the office archive for protection in a barn at the Ludwig family's farm outside Berlin." The downtown studio, where Reich left her own archive, "took a direct hit," Zimmerman adds.
Shortly after Ludwig's death in 1960, according to Mies' grandson, Dirk Lohan, a Chicago-based architect, "the East German authorities confiscated the crates from the barn, claiming that everything to do with the Bauhaus was state property, since the Bauhaus had been a state organization." Mies eventually persuaded the government to ship his material to Chicago. (He donated his archive to New York's Museum of Modern Art. "It's the only architect's archive MoMA has ever agreed to accept," says former MoMA architecture curator Terence Riley.) "But we have no idea what had been removed from the piles in Germany over the years," Lohan says. The photos to be auctioned on Nov. 13, he adds, "could have been kept in Lilly Reich's or Ludwig's private possession, or [they] could have come from the crates. I have no idea. I find it very strange and mysterious that the auction house won't specify where they came from."
Jeschke, Hauff & Auvermann has given price estimates from 120 euros (for a set of seven offset-printed photos of Weissenhof buildings) to 2,500 euros (Barcelona Pavilion views with office stamps). The catalog essay notes that "estimate prices were intentionally kept low to ease giving bids for official institutions." Matilda McQuaid, deputy curatorial director at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and author of a 1996 monograph on Reich, says that "it would be nice if these went to a museum." But with the chain of possession so vague, McQuaid adds, "it's a very fishy story. I don't think any museum would touch these with a 10-foot pole."